The Portland Trail Blazers were supposed to crumple after mid-season trades took CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Larry Nance, Jr. off of the roster, spread to the four winds. The players Portland got in return were unspectacular, garnered mostly for potential cap savings, not victories.
Except that’s not how it’s turned out. The Blazers have won three straight games. One of their new acquisitions, Josh Hart, is playing like a superstar incarnate. Unsurprisingly, Mr. hart is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Help me! I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m so excited about Josh Hart!!! He reminds me of Jerome Kersey or what Evan Turner was supposed to be. I want to bubble with joy but I’m old and realistic and I know you’re a voice of reason. Is it ok to be over the moon about him?
You should be excited about Hart! What a debut he’s made in Portland. 25 points per game, shooting 61% from the field, 53% from the three-point arc? I think the Blazers will take that. Insert blah blah about two-game sample size here. In a season filled with asterisks, it’s nice to see something unabashedly good.
This is the best of Josh Hart. We’re seeing his potential. Even if we also know that there’s no way this level of play or production will extend over a season, it’s not time for sidelong glances. Enjoy good things while you have them!
You’ve also seen Hart’s style on full display. He flourishes in the in-between spaces.
Hart isn’t a straight-up defensive stopper, but he moves well on defense. He links to multiple areas of the floor from any position and he expends the necessary effort to cover them. You’re not surprised to see him helping out at the rim or at the arc.
The same holds true on offense. One of the great revelations from his opening moments in Portland is the unconcerned way in which he takes jumpers. I don’t know if anyone told him, but his 32.3% success rate on three-pointers in New Orleans this year wasn’t very good. He hasn’t shot the three-ball well since his rookie year, really. Yet the moment he stepped onto the floor with the Blazers, he pulled up for the three like he was born to shoot it.
Realistically, Hart’s percentage is going to plummet. That’s fine, as long as he ends up somewhere in the middle in the end. Either way, you want players with that kind of confidence. There’s nothing worse than a shooter looking over his shoulder. Hart’s boldness is an asset. It’s one of the ways he bends the game to himself. The Blazers need that. If there comes a time when his production doesn’t match his confidence, they’ll deal with it. Right now, it’s all to the good.
As we saw against the Milwaukee Bucks last night, Hart is also valuable in Portland’s new transition game. His defense helps, of course. He also rebounds. But he’s one of those multi-tool players who can grab the ball off the glass, turn, take it down the floor, and make the right play at the other end, either converting the layup or passing to someone on the wing. That’s a lot of ability rolled into one player.
Depending on how the Blazers develop their roster, the “in-between” space Hart fills in transition may turn out to be significant. It’s been a long time since Portland’s running attack mattered. Under this coaching staff, with this personnel, it appears it will once again.
There’s a flip side to all this. Hart loses his specialness when he’s bound to one place. Static play will make him look ordinary. Portland’s system will weigh heavily, enhancing or limiting his opportunities to contribute. Two S-factors—shooting and size—also matter.
If Hart cannot maintain effective three-point shooting, the open space and passing lanes in front of him will disappear. As opponents back off of him, he’ll be driving into traffic, dribbling and passing through a crowd. He’s not a lightning-quick, junk-in-the-trunk scorer. He’s not going to look the same if defenses can predict where he wants to go.
At 6’5, Hart has swung between shooting guard and small forward his whole career. New Orleans even used him at power forward a little. He’s not likely to spend time at the four in Portland, but what is his best position? I’m guessing that extra touches and height parity at shooting guard will benefit him more than the off-ball, small-ball game at small forward. Offensively and defensively, he probably covers more ground (his specialty) at the two spot.
If the Blazers keep both Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons, shooting guard minutes will fill up quickly. Hart could probably start at the three, then swing to shooting guard when one of the Big Two rests, but it’s a bit awkward. Will the Blazers continue to see the best Hart under those circumstances? Or will they need to make more trades to secure a spot for him? He’s looked great so far, but is he the kind of player you build around, or does “in-between” describe him in this way too?
Keep in mind that it’s not 100% certain that Hart will remain with the Blazers after the season. If his high level of play continues, it’s hard to imagine them releasing him. If nothing else, they would envision him as a good trade piece next season. But a lot of things can happen between now and June 25th, when they’ll make a decision about guaranteeing his contract for next year. The franchise is so far up in the air right now, it’s impossible to predict where they’ll land or what their priorities will be upon touch down.
The best bet is that Hart continues to flourish for the rest of the season, getting plenty of touches and minutes in this devil-may-care, semi-lost season. As we said above, any goodness is welcome right now. The story might change next year, depending on Portland’s direction and roster make-up. When demands get stiffer and job descriptions tighter, Hart will need to leap another hurdle.
Until then, though, stay excited about their new wing. There’s no reason not to be.
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